Paul has constructed his argument over the opening chapters of Romans: while it may appear that there is a marked difference between “saint” and “sinner,” the truth is, all have sinned. Whether a little or a lot, we all have disobeyed and stand condemned before God.
Paul’s quoted the Psalms for his theological crescendo. He says that “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God … no one does good, not even one.” You have to pause and ask – “is that really true Paul?” Not a single person does moral good deeds? We observe every day, don’t we, people doing good. Right now, we rightly celebrate the sacrificial good work done by keyworkers. The NHS staff are daily putting themselves at risk, while the rest of us are hunkered down at home. At the same time, we have Biblical examples of individuals like Joseph and Daniel who seem to live holy lives. And then you have passages like Matthew 1:19, where Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus Christ, is described as “a just man.” The word for “just” there is more typically translated as righteous.
What are we saying, Paul? We’re saying that no person consistently and earnestly seeks God. Nobody always, every day, lives well enough. Nobody meets the standard. And whether we fall short by a million miles or by a few centimetres, we fall short. As David said in Psalm 51:5, sin is with us from the moment of birth. Job agrees in Job 14, saying of mankind “who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one.” James argues that if we bread the law in one point only, we are guilty of it all. The law is broken, and it can’t be unbroken.
That’s what we mean by Total Inability. We are unable to save ourselves because it only takes one act of disobedience, one moment of self-seeking rather than God-seeking, and it’s over.
After that devastating conclusion, Paul is keen to move us forward into hope! Having shown there is no distinction amongst us in terms of sin, there is also no distinction regarding salvation. Paul writes “[as] all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and [so all]:
- are justified – meaning, they’re declared to be right. Not made right, but called right by God Himself. How?
- by His grace as a gift – it couldn’t be by any other method. We were totally unable to earn it, so therefore it has to be a gift of grace. But how can it be offered?
- through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus – Paul uses the metaphor of the slave market. Redemption means that a transaction has occurred: one party has paid a sum to another, that a third party may go free.
- Whom God put forward as a propitiation – this technical term refers to the act of paying a satisfactory sum. In this case, it’s the sum to cover the penalty of sin. What was the sum paid?
- by His blood – there it is: the Law of Moses always declared that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (see Hebrews 9:22). The eternal blood of the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, is the only sufficient sum.
- to be received by faith – and here at last is the differentiator. All have sinned, but are all justified? Clearly, not: we do not hold to universalism, which is the view that everybody goes to Heaven. The differentiator is faith. God holds out a free gift. He says “I HAVE MADE A WAY THAT YOU MAY BE JUSTLY DECLARED RIGHTEOUS.” We who have gone astray – some a little, some a lot – have an equal offer of a free gift. It’s there for the taking. How do we take it? By believing all these things: that I need it, that I don’t deserve it, that God is able to offer it. And that belief, or faith, leads to faithfully living for Him.
Abraham the Example
Paul then wants to illustrate the point for us. To do this, he refers us to the highly revered figure of Abraham. Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, the first to receive circumcision, the one who received the promise of the Land, etc.
Paul shows that, while the Law of Moses does indeed give hundreds of rules for living and good conduct, it came after a more fundamental teaching. As such, it is subordinate to that teaching. What teaching? That righteousness comes through believing God. Paul argues: yes, Abraham received circumcision and is the father of the circumcised people, but that came after. After both the promise, and the faith in that promise. Yes, Abraham obeyed (Hebrews 11:8ff makes the point), but obedience came after and because of faith.
In the same way, for you and for me, we should walk in obedience. We ought to do works of faith. James argues this in James 2:22 – again using Abraham as his example – “faith was completed by his works.” We ought to aim to live holy lives. But we ought not to think this leads to more favour before God. It doesn’t purchase good will or God’s blessing. It doesn’t mean God will preserve our jobs or any such thing.
No, they are simple tokens that our allegiance has shifted. We once were dead in our selfish ways; we are now alive and free, and able to live as we were made to live.
What are you learning from this series? How is it impacting your lives?